Fixing education: a government-backed MOOC for emerging markets

Living in South Africa, I am surrounded by the vast divide in economic equality. Due to our history, the economics of South Africa has led to a particularly stark contrast between the haves and the have nots. The government in power, the African National Congress, has tried to address this inequality through two predominant policies: Black Economic Empowerment, and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment. BEE and BBEEE have almost completely failed, leading instead to a rise of an extraordinaly rich black class of black elite. I believe this inequality can be better addressed through education for the youth and adults of South Africa. This post will explore a specific implementation of an educational system based on technology.

A note: This post is not about “privilege”, it is about addressing a problem directly and providing one possible solution to it. The ANC has a decidedly socialist driven policy which will also not be focused on, as well as the various strategic alliances it has formed and must maintain in the Tripartite Alliance. The solution given in this post is aimed at implementation through minimal government intervention, more along the lines of a public-private partnership.

The current state of education

The ANC and other parties in South Africa have done a fair job at addressing the problems in education. It was a difficult problem to address, coming from the racist Bantu Education system introduced by the apartheid government. The methods of addressing this problem have been many, and have resulted in a poor education system, leaving matriculants in particular with little hope.

Some of the least beneficial systems have included a shift towards (and subsequently away from) an Outcome-based Education, which set the system back notably. The current solution seems to be to lower the standards of achievement so that more students can get a passing grade. The system used by public schools (schools run by government) is the National Senior Certificate which already sets a low bar. The pass rate on this reduced system has now been lowered to a meager 30%, which results in inadequately prepared students. This in turn results in students getting into university and then having an incredibly tough time passing, leading to major unrest fuelled by a government induced race driven sense of entitlement. Matriculants entering the workforce have an equally tough time in succeeding, as the basic skills necessary have not been developed.

Some of these students do manage to succeed, but it is not the norm. Extraodinary effort must be put in by these students to make their own way and get to a level playing field. Economics aside, improving their education level on entering university, and the workforce, would aid in immeasurable ways.

The power of MOOCs

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have had a major effect in the first world. Companies like Coursera, Udacity, Khan Academy and Udemy provide high-level, specific education for free or a minimal fee. Well known universities such as Stanford, MIT and the London School of Economics (through Coursera) also publish material for free, with some even giving credit to these free courses. Undoubtedly, the role of free education driven by technology has and will continue to have sizeable impact on education.

A subset of MOOCs aimed at basic education would have a fundamental impact on students ability to enter into the workforce and further their education. With the ubiquity of mobile phones with internet access, especially in developing countries, there is an opporunity to provide MOOCs made specifically for fundamental education.

A goverment-backed MOOC

An online education system which includes all material, from all levels of examination (government NCS and private IEB, in South Africa), could be used to give any person access to education. This MOOC can be worked through via mobile phones or laptops, and a student could maintain a track record of their progress. The system would include all modules from all subjects, multiple choice questions per module, and open questions per subject level. A forum would also be available for students to get help in their studies, in their native language.

A proposed structure follows:

  • On the top level are grades, from primary through to secondary (for example grades 5 through 12)
  • Each grade has all subjects offered at that grade
  • Each subject has modules
  • Each module has quick multiple choice tests at the end of the module, with larger tests at each grouping of module
  • A student can choose X amount of subjects per grade, the mix of necessary subjects left up to the discretion of the education department
    • Example: a student must take english and mathematics, and then choose 5 subjects from the remaining available

This would enable students who want to educate themselves to do so without the necessity of going into formal schools which are notoriously unreliable. Students can also go to the formal institutions and supplement their education through the MOOC, mitigating some of the negative effects of improperly instituted schooling (disinterested teachers, service delivery pitfalls with textbooks, etc).

By working with government, students who have reached the end of grades can take a formal examination and get the formal qualification as they would through the current education system. At the end of completing all modules, the student would then be able to take the matriculation examination through formal processes.

In addition to being student focused, the MOOCs can also offer employment specific courses, for example in steel works, accountancy, business management, etc.


The MOOC system will not be perfect, and will offer a lesser experience than a fully functional formal institution, but will be available for anyone who wishes to use it. The view taken is that something is better than nothing, and students who have the will to further their education would have an additional channel to do so.


Technically, this system would be relatively trivial to build. This would be an MVC project with a REST API to interact with the content. Authentication can be done with a username and password, linking an account to a MSISDN number or email address.

The biggest blocker to getting the system built is getting the material from the education insitutions themselves.


The proposed MOOC would provide an additional channel for education, allowing individuals to further themselves with basic or skills-specific education. Content access would be ubiquitous, and provide opportunities where there were none.

With the growing mobile footprint this provides access to individuals like never before, and this access can be used for creating lasting positive change.

Cover photo Nina Malina